ICYMI: Tough-on-crime debate needs balance of effective policies
From Cal Matters


From Karen Pank in Cal Matters

Splashy headlines, viral videos and fear of lawlessness have spurred the beginnings of a proverbial pendulum swing in California. 

Elected officials from both political parties are calling for more tough-on-crime actions, while just one year ago, measures were passed to reduce law enforcement budgets and responses.

The reality is that effective public safety is not the result of any one policy or decision. While I love a great TV crime drama, we must recognize that such entertainment lacks the complexity or context for reality. Effective policy is not as easy as the formula used on TV crime dramas: identify a villain, arrest the villain and wrap up the solution with a conviction. 

With this mindset, we will get stuck in an endless cycle of repeat programming. We know there is more to the story of truly building safer communities after TV show credits roll. Often, the person convicted will spend time under the supervision of probation, where we have an opportunity to impact their behavior while keeping the community safe.

From our experience, we know the best approach is an effective combination of accountability plus opportunity and rehabilitation. Too much of one approach fails to result in long-term sustainable safety. If anything, that should be the lesson to heed as we reflect on where we go from here.

A balanced approach to the justice system won’t make the evening news or become a viral video, but it is proven every time it is used as the most effective way to reduce recidivism and protect communities. For the last 10-plus years, probation has changed the way we work with adults and juveniles. We focus on using what works by carefully matching treatment with accountability to decrease the chance of seeing a repeat performance. 

For example, since the adoption of SB 678 in 2009, probation has dedicated resources to evidence-based supervision coupled with treatment interventions focused on helping individuals successfully leave the justice system. This has helped to safely reduce those supervised from returning to prison by more than 30% after the second year of implementation and reduce the prison population by more than 6,000 in the first year. 

In addition to reducing revocations, it also reduced the state correctional expenditures by more than $1 billion since its implementation. However, this approach starts to fail when we do not have enough time to deploy these services, the ability to hold those accountable when they are continuing to pose a threat to our communities, or the resources to focus on the necessary treatment and services. Yet, every aspect of what must happen after arrests and convictions, are often overlooked in crime dramas but most importantly in policy development.

Our concern today is that answers will be sought too far on either side of the pendulum. We should not abandon researched and effective policies, just to go back to a time that did not consider how to change criminal behavior post-conviction. However, we must learn from decisions that have layered one reform on top of the other without support for successful implementation. 

If policymakers rush to only look at the enforcement issues without addressing the “why,” we are doomed to experience more crime. If policymakers focus only on policies of rehabilitation without accountability for changing behavior, then we are also doomed to more crime. Most successful strategies in life and in policy are grounded in a careful balance of a carrot and stick approach.

Without a balance, we are destined to just watch the same TV show using the same incomplete formula over and over again. 

Let’s break our cycle of going from one extreme to another. Let’s adopt policies and procedures that rely on common sense – coupling effective and proven accountability with individualized supports that address justice-involved individuals’ needs for transformation out of the justice system forever. 

I’m convinced California can be more than just another TV crime drama.